A Speculative Process: Reading Jayce Salloum’s Mute Pictures
An early work by the Vancouver-based artist Jayce Salloum, remembering you (mute pictures), completed between 1987 and 1988, is included in Photography in Canada 1960–2000, an exhibition organized by and shown at the National Gallery of Canada's Canadian Photography Institute in 2017 and now on view at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia, Ontario. Accompanied by a spoken word soundtrack, the work is comprised of a series of silver gelatin photographs that have been painted to both obscure and isolate elements of their images, inviting the viewer to uncover their meaning.
Pages from a book produced in Nazi Germany are the source material for the work, but the manner in which Salloum has treated them renders them less recognizable and disrupts their original message, especially when viewed in combination with the rather oblique commentary provided by the accompanying voiceover. The series engages with the power of photography and the manipulation of propaganda, but by rendering the images more abstract Salloum at once implicates his audience and places them on guard. As curator Andrea Kunard notes in the catalogue, the work exploits and exaggerates the fragmentary character of photography in order “to challenge the idea that the medium is an accurate documentation of a particular place at a specific time, depicting a singular truth about its subject matter.” She also points out that that this fragmentary approach is consistent with Salloum’s manner of working in general, as his art practice mixes photographs, videos, drawings, paintings, texts and objects in interrelated constellations in order to destabilize any one dominant interpretation.
As a work, remembering you (mute pictures) has been presented in a variety of different ways, which makes its reception as a single static object even more challenging. It was first presented as the thesis work for Salloum’s Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of California, San Diego. The painted photographs were pinned to the wall with gold straight pins and the audio was looped on speakers in the gallery. (Incidentally, the artist Moyra Davey, who was a friend and fellow student in the MFA program, provides the voice for the soundtrack.) In another instance, for the exhibition Banff Souvenir in 1992, the images were shown in large vitrines while the audio was presented on headphones. At the NGC in 2017 and in the current exhibition, the work is presented as a digital slideshow on a flat screen monitor with headphones, alongside an original print from the series.
While there are shifts in the style and aesthetic of his work over time, Salloum has remained consistent in his approach. A recent work such as لِ که سوز ندارد, دلِ نیس (the heart that has no pain/love/generosity is not a heart), made in collaboration with Khadim Ali in 2010 and presented at the National Gallery of Canada in 2014 when Salloum was a laureate of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, has also been shown in new configurations each time it is presented.
Many of the aesthetic shifts in Salloum’s work have occurred when he adopted new technologies and formats as they became available, producing both challenges and new opportunities for gallery display. Able to be reconfigured in new installations, remembering you (mute pictures) remains a dynamic work that combines several disparate elements and reveals the restless spirit of Salloum’s œuvre in embryo.
Above all, the variable presentations of remembering you (mute pictures) over time suggest that there is no one fixed work, or one fixed meaning, but rather that instances of it represent a stage in the process of ongoing research. The inconclusive manner in which the material is presented not only reflects the content of the work, it also actively enlists viewers as agents in the construction of its meaning. In an essay from 2009 that takes a retrospective look at Salloum’s career, “Making Pictures Work,” art writer Keith Wallace offers an incisive description of Salloum’s practice: “…it decelerates our normal process of consuming images as they confront us on a daily basis, and offers the viewer some semblance of ownership in the processing of knowledge and the making of meaning.” The voiceover itself calls attention to the deliberate construction of the work: “These are prepared. This voice. These words. This image.” That the majority of the images are obscured by paint leaves the viewer with the task of determining what is being hidden. Furthermore, the voiceover directly engages the viewer as it is repeatedly addressed to the second person “you.” It establishes an intimate relationship and makes the viewer the recipient of various reflections on the nature of photography and ideology. The precise status of the relationship is never entirely clear however, as the tone and the use of pronouns shifts, and the syntax of the text progressively breaks down.
Adding another layer of complexity to this work, the content of remembering you (mute pictures) was also made available in yet another format. In 1988, Salloum published a bookwork that reproduced the images from the series and presented them alongside the text of the voiceover. A copy of the bookwork can be perused in the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives. It is a rather humble object, essentially comprised of black and white photocopies of images and text, bound with a white plastic strip between two transparencies.
The title page for the book is provided by a postcard that Salloum also produced at the time, and slipped between the cover transparency and the first page. The publisher for both the bookwork and the postcard is listed as "Jayce Salloum/Public Domain." This version of the work also includes an anti-copyright symbol on its back page, signaling that these are expressly vehicles for disseminating the information they contain. The idiosyncratic use of language, including spacing and elision, is a constant in Salloum’s practice, and the importance of text as much as image is underscored early on in his work.
Through these gestures, Salloum maintains a tradition established by the dematerialized practices of a previous generation of conceptual artists, who circumvented the gallery system and explored alternative arenas for reaching audiences with their art, including the pages of a magazine, the postal system and broadcast television. If, as Kunard argues, Salloum sees photographs, books and language as potent tools for “creating hierarchies and divisions of power,” then their power can also be redirected to alternative goals.
Photography in Canada 1960–2000, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, is on view at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia, ON, until September 8, 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.